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Ballard's Three Little Pigs launched
a lifetime of puppets
June 21, 1999
hen Frank Ballard was five years old and living in the small city of Alton, Ill., his aunt took him to a puppet show. He was entranced. "I came away from it knowing that I wanted to be a puppeteer," says Ballard, the internationally acclaimed puppeteer. He has since dedicated his life to the art.
Now, in honor of his 70th birthday, the founder of UConn's Puppetry Program and professor emeritus of dramatic arts showcases his work in an exhibit, "The Legacy of 'B' in BIMP," at the Ballard Museum and Institute of Puppetry in the Willimantic Cottage at the Depot Campus. The show includes puppets he built as a child, as well as puppets from his productions at the University from 1962 through 1989.
"The first show I ever did was The Three Little Pigs, says Ballard, pointing to his first puppets. The His aunt Margaret, whom he describes as "the artist in my life," helped him fashion the small, wooden marionettes from a toy that had once been strung across his crib. "I set them up in a box in our dining room and performed for Pal Alfred, my stuffed penguin and constant companion, who sat there all day and kept me from being lonely," Ballard says. "Whenever anyone else came into the room, they had to sit through a jiggling performance of The Three Little Pigs," he says with a grin. But his family was enthusiastic and supportive and helped him with his craft throughout the years. The puppet shows Pinocchio and Peter Rabbit followed.
Ballard glows when he speaks of his childhood. His first stage, built by his father, was given to him as a Christmas gift. "My aunt made three houses, did the painting and scenery, and we went to bigger pigs," he notes.
At the time, making puppets was a matter of trial and error. "Puppetry was very rare so you had to invent it yourself," he says. Over the years, with his aunt Margaret's help, he tried all sorts of materials to fashion puppets: rocks for hands and feet, plastic, wood, sun-baked clay and cement. He maintained his own 10-person company in grade school and throughout high school and college.
"I was lucky to have the support of a wonderful family and a teacher and principal in grade school who recognized my talent and encouraged me," Ballard says. His mother drove him from place to place to meet performance commitments, his father built numerous stages, and his aunt helped him build puppets. "I have always told my students two things," Ballard says with a chuckle, "learn how to drive and how to use a sewing machine."
In 1962, Ballard established the Puppetry Program at UConn, which became the only program in the U.S. to offer both graduate and undergraduate degrees in puppetry. During his tenure, until his retirement in 1989, he produced, designed and directed 100 operas and musicals for the puppet theater, created more than 1,500 individual puppets, and trained hundreds of students who have gone on to carry his legacy in the fields of stage, television, film and education. In 1980, a group of his students performed Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
"I came here as a student because of Frank," says Bart Roccoberton, who took over the helm as head of the Puppet Arts Program when his mentor retired. "I liked him very much instantly and realized that what he had created here offered potential for the art form that just didn't exist anyplace else," Roccoberton says. He adds that Ballard gave him three important things: "a great deal of training in my art form, a broad international perspective and trust in myself."
Ballard's productions include: Carmen, Samson and Delilah, Hansel and Gretel, Petrouchka, Kismet, and Peer Gynt. Three of his productions, The Golden Cockerel, The Magic Flute, and H.M.S. Pinafore, were named best full-scale puppet productions and were awarded annual citations for excellence in the U.S. by UNIMA, a worldwide organization of puppeteers. Ballard also has received an award from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts and, upon his retirement, a letter from President George Bush saluting him for his contribution to the arts.
The exhibit is scheduled to run through November 7. To accommodate the extraordinary number of puppets designed by Ballard, the exhibit will change periodically. The museum is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. For information and special tours call: (860) 486-4605.